10 Things You Should Know about Joy
The words of the psalmist are forthright and unmistakable: “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4). Clearly, joy is essential to our Christian experience and relationship to God. So here are ten things to keep in mind when you think about joy and your delight in God.
(1) The command is not that we have joy, but that we have joy or delight in God. David doesn’t say, “Delight yourself.” That would be an endorsement of secular, self-indulgent hedonism. Hedonism as it is found in the world at large is a philosophy of life and decision-making which says that choices should be made based solely on their capacity to bring us the greatest degree of personal pleasure. Hedonism, then, is the pursuit of pleasure as an end in itself. But David's counsel is that we delight ourselves in God!
Our joy is not in the experience of joy. Our joy is in who God is: his beauty, majesty, love, grace, power, promises, and all that he has revealed himself to be for us in Jesus. We do not use God as a means to attain joy. God is not the shovel by which we dig for treasure. God is the treasure. Joy in him is the goal.
(2) There is in your soul an insatiable hunger for happiness. Every one of you woke up this morning, as you have every day before, with a chronic, unending ache in your soul for joy and delight. God has hardwired into your soul a yearning, a longing, an unrelenting passion for pleasure. That’s right: God did it!
That impulse you feel every moment of every day to seek out whatever will bring you the greatest joy and excitement came from God. It’s not the result of a bad education or your parents’ failure to raise you properly. Far less is it the result of some sin you may have committed. It’s part of what it is to be created in the image of God.
(3) We are commanded to seek our joy in God. This isn't something we are to “pray about” or “consider”, as if it were an option or choice. This is a moral obligation binding on all. You can't respond to this statement by saying: “Thanks, God, but no thanks. I think I'll pass on this one. It's just not my style. It's not in keeping with my personality or temperament or spiritual gifts. But thanks anyway.” No. Such would be sin! In a word: delight is a duty.
(4) Delight or joy is also a feeling, an emotion, an affection, a subjective experience that is ultimately not under our control. It isn't something we can produce by an act of will. God has to awaken and stir and evoke such affections in our souls. He uses a variety of means to this: Scripture, creation, the sacraments, obedience, prayer, worship, meditation, etc. Our responsibility, as Jonathan Edwards put it, is “to lay ourselves in the way of allurement.” God’s responsibility is to allure.
(5) But why joy? Why do the biblical authors, such as David, make delight or joy in God so central to our relationship with him? Is it not enough simply to obey God or fear God or worship God or believe in God? Why joy? Why delight? Why does it matter so much?
Joy in God matters profoundly because more than any other human response or experience, joy clearly and thoroughly reveals the worth and value and splendor of whatever it is that evokes it. In other words, joy or delight is the single most effective means for glorifying and magnifying God.
(6) Deep durable delight in God is how he is most glorified and honored in you. “God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him” (Piper). God is most glorified in you (and all believers) when you are most pleased and satisfied and fascinated and enthralled with the splendor of his beauty that can be seen in the face of Jesus Christ.
When you experience and express joy in God, perhaps in the midst of indescribable suffering or hardship or loss, others stop and ask: “What must this God be like that he is deemed worthy not simply of acknowledgement but delight, not simply recognition but rejoicing?”
“Joy is the clearest witness to the worth of what we enjoy. It is the deepest reverberation in the heart of man of the value of God’s glory” (Piper).
All Christians affirm that we exist to glorify God and that whatever else we may think about spirituality it involves, at minimum, a commitment that he be magnified in our lives. But how is God most glorified in us? Where and in what way is God’s glory most clearly revealed? Through what mechanism or means do we bring him the honor that we all agree he deserves? I believe the consistent answer of Scripture is that God is most glorified in us when our knowledge and experience of him ignite a forest fire of joy that consumes all competing pleasures and he alone becomes the treasure that we prize.
(7) Here’s how Jonathan Edwards put it:
“God is glorified not only by his glory’s being seen, but by its being rejoiced in. When those that see it delight in it, God is more glorified than if they only see it. God made the world that he might communicate, and the creature receive, his glory . . . both [with] the mind and the heart. He that testifies his having an idea of God’s glory [doesn’t] glorify God so much as he that testifies also his approbation [i.e., his heartfelt commendation or praise] of it and his delight in it” (Misc. 448).
I’m not suggesting that understanding the nature of God isn’t essential. Of course it is! Theological ignorance won’t take us very far, at least not in the right direction. Excitement uninformed by truth invariably leads either to idolatry or fanaticism. If we don’t know the God we enjoy we may end up enjoying the wrong god! But knowledge alone isn’t enough. Declaring God’s glory to others is also important, but again, there’s something even more fundamental to our existence. For evangelicals who’ve been raised to believe that theological precision is an end in itself, this may be a hard pill to swallow. For others who’ve reduced Christianity to obedience, it may sound self-indulgent.
My point is simply that passionate and joyful admiration of God, and not merely intellectual apprehension, is the aim of our existence and thus the essence of true spirituality. If God is to be supremely glorified in us it’s critically essential that we be supremely glad in him and in what he has done for us in Jesus. So, here’s why you exist: to relish and rejoice in the revelation of divine beauty so that Christ becomes your all consuming passion and sin turns sour in your soul.
(8) When we speak of human happiness or delight or joy we’re not talking about physical comfort or a six-figure salary or emotional stability or the absence of conflict or sexual gratification or any such earthly or temporal achievement. That’s not to say such things are inherently wrong. In their proper place they may well be expressions of divine benevolence. But we greatly err if they become foundational to human happiness. We should be grateful for them, but happiness is still within our grasp despite their absence.
The happiness for which we are eternally destined is a state of soul in which we experience and express optimum ecstasy in God. Happiness is the whole soul resting in God and rejoicing that so beautiful and glorious a Being is ours. Happiness is the privilege of being enabled by God’s grace to enjoy making much of him forever (Piper). I’m talking about the ineffable and unending pleasure of blissful union with and the joyful celebration of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is a joy of such transcendent quality that no persecution or pain or deprivation can diminish, nor wealth or success or prosperity can enhance. It’s what Paul had in mind in Philippians 4:11 when he spoke of a satisfaction in Christ that was beyond the reach of either adversity or abundance.
God created us to glorify himself by enriching us with the joy that flows from a saving encounter with the splendor of his Son. So the goal of our creation was not simply that we might be happy, but happy in beholding God’s own eternal excellencies. Not in beholding our own accomplishments. Not in the enjoyment of our own sensual appetites. Not in the development of a healthy self-esteem or in the acquisition of a four-bedroom home with a three-car garage. God “is the fountain of all felicity” and bids us come and drink!
The joy of which David speaks and the joy for which Paul labored and prayed and preached should never be thought of in terms of “feeling good about yourself” or living in the lap of luxury. This joy is far and away removed from any form of self-indulgent smugness or that superficial psychological giddiness that comes from reaping the material comforts of western society.
The joy that I have in mind is a deep (not superficial or merely surface), durable (sustains you in the worst of times, no less than in the best of times) delight (not merely duty or following God out of a sense of moral obligation) in the splendor of God (not in the stuff or goodies or achievements that occupy so many today) that utterly ruins you for anything else.
It is a whole-souled savoring of the spiritual sweetness of Jesus that drives out all competing pleasures and leads the soul to rest content with the knowledge of God and the blessings of intimacy with him. This is the kind of joy that, rather than being dependent on material and physical comfort, actually frees you from bondage to it and liberates you from sinful reliance on worldly conveniences and gadgets and gold.
(9) Joy in God matters profoundly because apart from our souls relishing the breathtaking beauty of Christ and resting in the all-sufficiency of his grace and goodness, we don’t stand a chance against the world, the flesh, and the devil.
The key to living a successful, sin-killing life doesn’t come primarily from trying harder but from enjoying more. I’m not saying that you can be a successful Christian without trying. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not advocating passivity, nor was Paul. What I’m saying is that enjoyment empowers effort. Pleasure in God is the power for purity.
The biblical authors’ commitment to our joy in Jesus was motivated, at least in part, by the fact that Satan is no less committed to our joy in the passing pleasures of sin (cf. Hebrews 11:25). The diabolical strategy of the enemy is to seduce us into believing that the world and the flesh and sinful self-indulgence can do for our weary and broken hearts what God can’t. This is the battle that we face each day. We awaken to a world at war for the allegiance of our minds and the affections of our souls. The winner will be whoever can persuade us that he will bring greatest and most soul-satisfying joy. That is why we must labor and pray and strive so passionately and sacrificially for joy in Jesus.
(10) Joy in God matters profoundly because unlike so many other affections in the soul or activities in life, joy engages and expresses the totality of our being.
You can understand something without rejoicing in it. I understand a little of how a car operates, how the engine works. But even the thought of looking under the hood of a car makes me physically sick! I find absolutely no joy in it.
You can make a decision in life or exercise your will in regard to some matter that you profoundly dislike, in which you find no joy. But when you truly rejoice in something you must both understand it and choose it. Joy requires the engagement of every faculty of soul and spirit and mind and heart. Joy gives expression to the whole of who you are in a way that nothing else can.
Truly to enjoy something or someone you must both understand it and choose it. You must grasp it with your mind and embrace it with your heart. Only joy requires everything within us to reach its consummate expression.
(10) John Piper once said that joy in God matters profoundly because there is no such thing as hypocritical joy or insincere joy. You can pretend to have joy when you really don’t (as when I’ll pretend to enjoy the squash you serve me at your home). You can fake having joy, but you can’t have fake joy. There’s something pure and sincere and genuine about joy that isn’t the case with any other human emotion.